Some New Yorkers live near a cheese-coated subway station. Others, traces of meningitis

In the first genetic profile of a metropolitan transit system, Weill Cornell Medical College researcher Christopher Mason and his team spent 18 months swabbing 466 subway stations in New York City. The findings were published in the journal Cell Systems. He says in many ways the results are “a mirror of the people themselves who ride […]

In the first genetic profile of a metropolitan transit system, Weill Cornell Medical College researcher Christopher Mason and his team spent 18 months swabbing 466 subway stations in New York City. The findings were published in the journal Cell Systems.

He says in many ways the results are “a mirror of the people themselves who ride the subway.”

As you might expect, there were traces of pizza ingredients throughout the system. Actually a variety of cheeses.

But there were some disturbing findings too. For instance, Mason found germs that could cause bubonic plague uptown, meningitis in midtown, stomach problem bacteria in the financial district, toxic cleanup bacteria in Hell’s Kitchen, and antibiotic-resistant infections around the borough stops. They even found traces of bacteria related to anthrax.

Wall Street Journal put together a pretty incredible interactive map to see exactly what type of DNA was found at each station.

“The important fact is that the majority of the bacteria that we found are harmless,” Mason told The Atlantic. Protective bacteria that eliminate toxins were much more common. “They represent a phalanx of friends that surround us.”

“The most surprising thing was the fact that almost half of the DNA we found matched no known organism to humanity,” Mason said. “We’ve never seen it before, we have no idea what it is, until now.”

The Atlantic explained what this surprising part indicates:

Of the more than 10 billion DNA fragments that the team sequenced, about 5 billion were unaccounted for. That’s not to say that these DNA fragments belong to never-before-seen organisms. Rather, it shows that the library of sequenced genomes still has many empty shelves. Where beetles and flies were most prevalent in this sampling, evidence of cockroaches was absent—not because New York isn’t crawling with them (it is), but because scientists haven’t fully sequenced the cockroach genome yet. Once that information becomes available, cockroaches will become better represented in the sampling, according to Mason.

The next goal for Mason is to make it available for subway riders to be able to use their mobile devices to essentially scan the seat next to them and see if there’s a little bit of toxic waste or a just a little bit of pizza.

[Photo from Flickr user Peter Thoeny – Quality HDR ]